Hit series' nostalgia and the innovation of design motivates student to create winning design

UNT student Stephen Walsh is back home, following a special trip to Canada this month. The interior design senior recently won first prize in a Teknion Student Design Competition, earning a two-day trip to Toronto to discuss his winning design with Teknion product developers. Teknion designs and sells high-end office furniture and systems to divide work spaces.

Stephen Walsh's winning design
Stephen Walsh: "I used the chunkiness and general shape of an open-front mid-century desk with floating surfaces typical during that period. I also used walnut, a common wood type during that era, and brushed stainless steel detailing."

Design winner

Walsh created an executive office suite called "District Meets Mad Men." The design acknowledges nostalgic elements of the series' mid-century furniture, updated to feel fresh and modern.

"I was trying to create a high-end executive line that coordinates with Teknion's existing line called District," he said. "My design offers a high degree of personalization through configurable shelving options and rails that support existing Teknion lighting and accessories. This furniture creates a sense of nostalgia, while beveled edges and contrasting storm white laminate and medium walnut veneer offer a sophisticated, modern and confident personal office line."

Design inspiration

Walsh says a specific Mad Men episode spoke to him about the nostalgia of the era and of the design process.

"In this episode, Don Draper talks about the power of nostalgia as he presents Kodak with the campaign for their Carousel projector," Walsh says. "He speaks of nostalgia as 'a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.' He says the projector is a 'time machine' that 'takes us to a place where we ache to go again — a place where we know we are loved.' It's one of the most brilliant television episodes I've ever seen and relates perfectly to design.

"People like mid-century furniture for different reasons — for its innovation, for its honesty to materials, " Walsh explains. "I like it for those reasons, too, but also for its nostalgia. It reminds me of a time and place that was simpler or maybe just one I perceive to have been simpler. When I planned my design, I wasn't trying to create mid-century furniture — I was borrowing elements to create something new and fresh with a sense of nostalgia.

Design function

Walsh says he chose to pursue a career in interior design, not only because he has a passion to create, but also because of his conviction about the importance of design.

"I believe design is significantly undervalued," he says. "Design has the ability to impact quality of life, increase productivity, create lasting memory — even shorten hospital recovery times. We go through life constantly impacted by design — good, bad, or lack of. Good design is almost always instantly recognized, while bad design is just accepted as the norm as we move in and out of poorly designed spaces day after day. Interior design even has a huge impact on our health. Indoor air quality is generally worse than outdoor air quality, largely because of the paints, materials, and adhesives that are specified."

Walsh explains how the philosophy of good design evolved during the last century.

"The Industrial Revolution taught us how to make things, now we're learning how to make them better — how to use materials to their utmost potential, how to make products sustainable so they don't impact future generations, how to mimic the efficiency and design of nature." 

Design program

Walsh says the faculty in UNT's design program provided him with the skills and encouragement he needed to win the contest.

"The design faculty is fantastic and always ready to provide knowledge and feedback," he says. "They've given me a solid foundation of tools and skills and are always willing to help us develop those skills. I'm a big believer in the idea that you get out of your education, what you put into it. It's up to each of us as adults to share in the effort of ensuring we get the best educational experience possible."

He says he can think of many examples of faculty helping and mentoring him along his design education path. One faculty member, Cynthia Mohr — chair of the design department — even managed to change his mind when he'd decided he wouldn't submit a sophomore portfolio, thereby eliminating him from the design program.

"We actually go through two cuts, entry portfolio submissions where they take 50 or so out of 100-plus submissions, and then again as sophomores, where they cut us down to 35," Walsh explains. "I hadn't finished a project that was required and didn't think I had a chance.

"Cynthia Mohr caught me in the hall and asked if I had turned in my portfolio. I told her I wasn't going to submit. The lesson I had not yet learned was to strive for excellence, but that perfection is unattainable — there just isn't enough time. I've easily spent 100-plus hours on a single project. She convinced me to submit anyway and I made it into the program. Apparently, my other work was of a high enough standard so I could squeak by, even with a partially completed perspective drawing. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn't submitted."

Walsh says if he had to pick a faculty member who served as a mentor to him, he'd choose Ron Reed, assistant professor of design.

"Ron's strength as an instructor is not only his knowledge and ability in design, but his almost brutal honesty. He doesn't pull punches (though he may soften them at times), which is exactly what we need as young designers. He pushes us to be better and to strive for more. His role teaching the sophomore classes sets a standard and mind set for the rest of our academic careers at UNT. Ron, like the rest of the interior design faculty, really cares about the success of his students and is willing to go out of his way to help them succeed."

Design future

After he graduates from UNT in May, 2010, Walsh says he plans to "pursue a position with a local interior design firm."

"My goal is to land a position with a multidisciplinary firm that embraces sustainability as part of their design philosophy," he says. "The ideal scenario would let me do a little bit of all the different fields of interior design: commercial, hospitality, healthcare, etc.  I'm a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional (LEED AP), so sustainability is very important to me. I believe "good" design must consider the impact on future generations."

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Walsh's 5 most important design recommendations

  • Analyze the space and the problem or problems before you do anything.
    We call this "programming" and it's one of the most important steps and is often overlooked. You should be thinking about what the space is used for, activities, number of people, etc. If a space looks good, but doesn't function, then who cares -- its basically unsuccessful.
  • Pay attention to scale.
    Don't rush out and buy the overstuffed sofa (preferably don't buy overstuffed sofas) and cram it into a ridiculously small space. The same goes for any other kind of furniture. If you have a certain need, a lot of times there's a better solution that requires a little more effort to find.
  • Have a concept.
    This could get really abstract, so I'll simplify it: have a unifying idea or theme for a space. All of your decisions should be informed by your concept. If something you want to do, doesn't fit the concept, then leave it out.
  • Use repetition of elements to create unity.
    That doesn't mean buying 10 of the same lamp. Elements could be paint color, wood types and stains, the shape of furniture, etc. A little contrast can create interest, but the key word there is "little".
  • The free lesson is over.
    Hire a registered interior designer.